Dietitians in the Media Spotlight
In our latest Dietitians Week blog post, freelance consultant dietitian and Senior Lecturer in nutrition and dietetics, Ursula Philpot takes a look at how the profession is portrayed by the media.
When it comes to commenting on nutrition and weight stories, the media usually make no distinction between self-styled nutritionists with no formal qualifications, qualified nutritionist and Dietitians- watching someone with no qualifications claiming they are an expert is infuriating for anyone who has spent many years getting qualified. The problem is that at the moment nutritionist is not a protected title – hence anyone can call themselves by this title, qualified or not! The public, and most people outside of nutrition / medical professions, do not realise there is a difference between nutritionist and Dietitian.
When it comes to making programmes an experienced and senior media professional has usually been around long enough to remember there is a difference, but day to day programme producers and researchers usually don’t, and qualifications that look OK on paper are not looked at in any detail, so all sorts of unqualified people end up being used to give expert opinions.
Some media industries are much better than others in ensuring they only use highly qualified dietitians. For example BBC News tries to always use professionals such as Dietitians or doctors to discuss health related articles.
Why are stories about nutrition so popular? It seems that we have become a nation obsessed with trying to restrict what we eat to keep slim in the face of an environment where tempting food is everywhere we go. From TV cooking programmes, to coffee shops, to vending machines we can’t escape being bombarded with images of foods we are told we should not eat. We are also given lots of rules for eating by the government, by nutritionists and by the dieting industry. This creates a public interest/anxiety about choosing foods, and in trying to resist food in a drive to stay slim.
The media has played a significant role in this by reporting new research in a way that is often sensational and fails to provide a balanced view on the credibility of the study or its outcomes. Women’s magazines also promote an aspirational lifestyle that is often entirely unrealistic for most people. They include a lot of dieting articles, and lots about weight and shape ideals. This creates feelings of failure and guilt in individuals who ‘fail’ to manage to live off salad, go to the gym and maintain a size eight figure. Low self-esteem and strict rules for living are two of the biggest risk factors for disordered eating.
I have really enjoyed my media work. I’ve found that in general the programme producers are very happy for you to give your opinions and offer advice. The biggest challenge is that it is really difficult to sum up complex research and explain difficult concepts in just a few sentences and without using technical terms, but I have got better at this! I’ve been told that I appeal because I’m down to earth, warm and compassionate, which is great as this is how I am when I work with clients. It’s important for viewers to connect with you as a person, as unless they do, they will not listen to what you have to say!
As the profession continues to mature, I think the two biggest improvements would be to protect the title of nutritionist, and for the media and general public to have a greater understanding of the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
Dietitians also need to become more savvy in using social media and become more active in responding to misconceptions, and opinions on social media about nutrition and weight related stories or trends. This is why the British Dietetic Association have launched ‘Trust a Dietitian’ week to promote what we do and help to spread the word about who the public should trust for nutritional advice.
Also I think Dietitians have to ensure that they are open minded to emerging areas of nutrition and its evolution as a science. It’s easy to criticise the opinions of non Dietitians as not being evidenced based or not knowing as much. For example ideas and diets that become popular with the public are often dismissed as fads by Dietitians. I think that just dismissing these is not helpful and portrays us poorly; it’s much better to enquire, be curious, engage and debate with new ideas and the pros and cons of these approaches. This helps to promote dietitians and shows what we know it and how we work.
Dietitians Week is led by the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and provides a fantastic opportunity to promote the profession nationally and even globally. Throughout the week the BDA have created a range of activities and events that highlight the value of dietitians and their work, but to also celebrate this work in a fun way.
The Week will include a range of national awareness raising and political events throughout the UK to promote the profession and the impact of dietetic practice on the health of the nation.
Ursula is a freelance consultant dietitian and senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics, providing specialist nutritional consultancy to the media, companies and individuals. She has extensive experience in NHS settings, specialist eating disorder services and runs her own private practice.